Qatar World Cup faces new edict: Hide the beer

The message came from the highest levels of the Qatari state: The beer tents must be moved, and there would be no discussion about it.

With the opening game of the World Cup only days away, Qatari organizers have been working hurriedly in recent days to relocate Budweiser-branded beer stations at eight stadiums after a sudden demand that three people with knowledge of the belated change said had come from inside the country’s royal family.

The people spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss sensitive planning details for the tournament. World Cup officials appeared to confirm the changes in a statement, however. Budweiser said it only learned of the new plan Saturday — eight days before the tournament’s first game.

People take photos with the official FIFA World Cup Countdown Clock on Doha’s corniche, in Qatar. (AP)

The decision to move the beer stations appeared to be rooted in concern that the prominent presence of alcohol at stadiums during the monthlong World Cup would unsettle the local population and thus represent a potential security problem. But it also highlighted an issue that has stalked the buildup to the first World Cup in the Arab world, and that is expected to be contentious throughout the tournament in Qatar, a conservative Muslim country where access to alcohol is tightly controlled.

Ever since FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, awarded the hosting rights to Qatar in December 2010, tournament organizers have grappled with balancing the obligations they signed up to fulfill — which include the sale of alcohol and providing promotional space for Budweiser, one of FIFA’s biggest sponsors — with concerns about upsetting, or alienating, a domestic constituency that has chafed at some of the culture clash inherent in bringing a traditionally beer-soaked event to a Muslim nation.

Alcohol is not banned in Qatar, but most visitors are able to purchase it only at bars inside designated hotels. FIFA and Qatari officials had struggled for years to devise a plan for the World Cup, where beer has flowed freely for generations, before finally deciding that the sale of alcoholic beverages would be permitted within a security perimeter outside venues but not inside the stadium bowls themselves.

Still, moves that limit Budweiser’s branding or affect its ability to sell its products could complicate FIFA’s relationship with a powerful partner, not to mention the contractual relationship between the brewer, the governing body and Qatari World Cup organizers.

Budweiser pays roughly $75 million to associate itself with the World Cup every four years. But a World Cup in Qatar has produced unusual obstacles, and led to ongoing tensions between the company and FIFA over issues ranging from agreeing on sales points in Qatar to negotiating how to get supplies into the country.

Budweiser’s contract with FIFA not only gives it sales exclusivity but requires the company to provide vast quantities of beer for FIFA’s partners and hospitality guests.

Budweiser said it was not informed of the changes by FIFA until Saturday. The company is “working with FIFA to relocate the concession outlets to locations as directed,” a Budweiser spokesperson told The New York Times in a statement. The spokesperson declined to disclose if the company was getting the rights it was entitled to under its contracts, saying only that “our focus is on delivering the best possible consumer experience under the new circumstances.”

A representative of the World Cup organizing committee released a statement — which it said was on behalf of both the tournament and FIFA — that played down the changes. “Operational plans are being finalized,” it read, adding that “this has a direct impact on the location of certain fan areas.” The statement made no mention of beer and noted that “pouring times and the number of pouring destinations” remained the same at all eight stadiums.

The sudden change on alcohol sales is in keeping with the ever-shifting buildup to the 2022 World Cup. Work to complete hotels and accommodations to house the estimated 1 million visitors continues even this week, and changes large and small have been made even as the first matches loomed. In August, for example, the date for the opening game — a milestone in place for years — was suddenly moved forward by a day on the eve of celebrations and a global advertising campaign to mark 100 days to go.

Since they first started bidding for the World Cup in 2009, Qatari officials have said that beer would be more widely available during the tournament in Qatar, but that it would be sold and consumed on terms that respected local customs. An experiment to sell beer around the 2019 Club World Cup ended with mixed results.

For that event, Qatari officials built a fan zone on the outskirts of Doha where fans were allowed to drink freely for hours each day. Supporters were then ferried by buses to the stadium, a journey that took about 45 minutes.

Organizers have also created similar destinations for the monthlong World Cup.

Budweiser has been a ubiquitous presence at the World Cup since first signing up as a FIFA sponsor a year before the 1986 Cup in Mexico. It has been a reliable source of revenue for the organization ever since, though it was among a slew of top FIFA partners to cautiously express concerns in 2014 amid a stream of allegations that members of FIFA’s leadership at the time had been bribed to select Qatar to host the 2022 tournament. “We are concerned about the situation and are monitoring developments,” the company said at the time. “We expect FIFA to take all necessary steps to address the issue.”

FIFA’s leadership was eventually removed, but the World Cup remained with Qatar, and Budweiser planned accordingly. It announced plans to use the event to sell and promote its nonalcoholic beverages alongside its beer in specific locations.

Now even that plan is not certain. One official involved in the process said FIFA officials agreed to move the beer tents to more obscure locations because they were concerned that if they did not, they risked seeing Budweiser’s concessions being shut down entirely.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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